From The Times
Michael Evans, Defence Editor
The official inquiry into Britain’s involvement in the invasion of Iraq in 2003 — described as a “war of choice” rather than a war of necessity — should expose for the first time the political and military disagreements that led to the decision by Tony Blair to commit 45,000 troops to support the American campaign against Saddam Hussein.
Two inquiries have already been held — the Hutton inquiry into the circumstances behind the suicide of David Kelly, the Ministry of Defence expert on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programme, and the Butler inquiry into the intelligence used to justify the war.
Neither inquiry, however, addressed the key political decision-making process, including the individual views of Cabinet ministers, the extent of the planning for the aftermath of the invasion, the discussions with the Americans, the scale of the concerns expressed by military chiefs over the legality of the war and the level of preparation for the war, including the options considered in the event of the campaign going wrong.
On the evidence that has emerged during the last six years of Britain’s campaign in Iraq, codenamed Operation Telic, a number of key questions remain to be answered:
1. At what stage did the Blair Government decide that removing Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction (WMD) was no longer the only objective and that regime-change was the real aim?
Ministers and officials must have suspected that with such thin intelligence available on the scale and whereabouts of the weapons, there would have to be other reasons for invading Iraq. Mr Blair and Mr Bush agreed that the purpose behind the invasion was to “disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, to end Saddam Hussein’s support for terrorism and to free the Iraqi people”.
However, the British Government — and, importantly, MI6 — never supported Mr Bush’s claim that Saddam was linked to al-Qaeda and thus, indirectly, to 9/11. Regime-change was never put forward officially as a campaign objective.
Indeed, Jack Straw, then Foreign Secretary, declared in public that regime change was not the motivation for going to war with Iraq and insisted that, provided the WMD was found and destroyed, there was no reason why Saddam Hussein should not remain as leader in Baghdad.
However, this was not the view in Washington and Mr Blair would have known from an early stage in his discussions with President George Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney that toppling Saddam was the main American objective. There was never any question, in Mr Bush’s mind, of seeing Saddam still in power after he had assembled 100,000 US troops in Kuwait for the invasion. Was this a reality fully understood by the UK War Cabinet?
2. What was going on behind the scenes as the demand for a “second UN resolution” was abandoned?
The British position was that the United Nations Security Council needed to approve a mandate for going to war with Iraq, indicating that the existing UN resolutions — 17 of them — and in particular Resolution 1441, passed in 2002, was not sufficiently strong to justify military action. Mr Blair persuaded Mr Bush to seek what was called a “second resolution”. In early 2003, the US, Britain and Spain proposed a resolution which sought a mandate for the use of force to remove the suspected WMD.
When it became clear that this move was not going to succeed — France would have vetoed it — the resolution was withdrawn but plans for the invasion went ahead on the basis of Resolution 1441, as well as the persistent failure of Saddam to dismantle his weapons programme, as demanded by the UN Security Council on many previous occasions.
Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, said that Iraq was in “material breach” of Resolution 1441 which allowed for all necessary measures to be used to persuade Saddam to conform to the Security Council’s wishes.
Lord Goldsmith, QC, the Attorney General, went along with this argument and produced his controversial legal advice to the Government — later published in full — which justified military action on the basis of existing UN resolutions.
So what was going on behind the scenes in Downing Street, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence during those key weeks when the Government’s stance on the need for a second UN resolution was abandoned and military plans were pursued on the say-so of the Attorney General? It is already known, because he said so himself, that Admiral Sir Michael (now Lord) Boyce, then Chief of the Defence Staff, demanded written reassurance, on behalf of the 45,000 British troops who were lining up in Kuwait, that the war was going to be lawful.
3. What effort was put into post-invasion planning? What assumptions were made and how much real co-ordination was there between the US and British governments over how Iraq would be administered once the military phase of the campaign was over?
The British military planners at the time envisaged that the UK armoured division sent into southern Iraq from Kuwait would have several roles: engaging in combat to defeat the Iraqi army, seizing control of the southern oilfields and the city of Basra and then becoming involved in a wholesale humanitarian operation to assist the Iraqi people. The military were convinced that they would be greeted as liberators, not occupiers, and there was even an expectation that the Iraqi soldiers forced by Saddam to confront the foreign troops could be persuaded to join them.
While many of the Iraqis in the south — mostly Shias who had been suppressed by Saddam for decades — welcomed the arrival of British troops, their continuing presence on Iraqi soil eventually provoked one of the fiercest and most bloody insurgencies which lasted for five years. It was backed by neighbouring Iran.
Did anyone among the planners, military and political, warn of the possibility of a serious fightback by the defeated Iraqi army, and was Iran’s likely involvement predicted? Above all, what steps did Britain take to try to stop the Americans — in particular Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary — from the disastrous de-Baathification policy announced by Paul Bremer, the US administrator in post-Saddam Iraq, under which all Iraqi soldiers and government civil servants were sacked, a strategy which directly led to the eruption of the Sunni insurgency?
4. Why was the size of the British force in Iraq progressively reduced even though the troops there were coming under daily attack by an increasingly well-armed and well-trained extremist militia?
During 2005, 2006 and 2007 there were never enough troops to protect the Iraqi citizens living in Basra, and control of the city began to fall into the hands of the Iranian-backed Shia hardliners. By September 2007, the 500 remaining troops based inside the city were under such pressure that there was little alternative but to withdraw them to the relative safety of the airbase northwest of the city, leaving Basra to the mercy of the extremists.
What debate was going on in Whitehall at this time? Who, if anyone, was arguing that more, not fewer, troops were needed to safeguard the lives of Iraqis living in Basra, let alone the British soldiers themselves? Was anyone warning that the withdrawal of the last troops inside Basra might lead to a take-over by the Shia extremists and that this would be interpreted — by the Americans and by historians — as a defeatist move by the British, one which did no favours for the reputation of the British Army?
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